I was just reflecting on the fact that things are so much easier these days now that there are only 100 pennies in the English pound.
The reason for my ruminations is that, when I was a young lad, I used to read an electronics hobbyist magazine called Practical Electronics. One of the articles was called "Take 20" because of these projects required 20 or fewer components and cost 20 shillings or less.
Now, when I'm explaining things to my American friends (or to younger folks from England), this is the point where things start to become a little confusing, because someone will invariably ask "What's a shilling?" This opens the door to a mind-boggling discussion on one of the currencies of yesteryear.
Prior to 1971, the British used a currency system based on “pounds, shillings, and pence.” This was also written as LSD, where the “L” comes from the Latin word libra and the D comes from the Latin word denarius, which was a type of coin in Roman times.
The way in which this worked was that there were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings (240 pennies) in a pound. This system was actually instigated as far back as the 8th century by the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne.
The advantage of such a system was its use in mental arithmetic, as it afforded many factors and hence fractions of a pound such as tenths, eighths, sixths and even sevenths if the guinea of 21 shillings was used (see below). When dealing with items in dozens (which was very common in those days – in fact, we still purchase eggs by the dozen to this day), multiplication and division are straightforward; for example, if a dozen of something cost four shillings, then the individual items would each cost four pennies.
Of course, it’s also easy to see the problems involved with such a scheme; for example, let’s assume that, when I was a young lad, something in a shop was priced at 1 pound, 8 shillings, and 9 pence... how much would it cost for three of the little rascals?
And, in fact, things were a tad more complicated than the brief overview above might lead you to believe, because there were a variety of other coins. For example, there was a farthing
(a quarter of a penny) and a half-penny
that was known as a ha-penny
[prior to the reign of Edward 1 (1272-1307), half-pennies and farthings were made by cutting a real penny into two or four pieces, respectively.]
There was also a two-penny piece (although admittedly this was only made in 1797) and a three-penny piece that was known as a threpney bit
(this was made in silver until 1945 at which point the government started making them in brass).
Then there was the groat
, which was worth four pennies and was made from 1836 to 1888. Also the sixpence
(worth six pennies), which was known as a tanner
, and the shilling
(worth twelve pennies), which was known as the bob
. But wait, there’s more! There was also the florin
, and guinea
These coins are discussed in more detail in The History of Calculators, Computers, and Other Stuff
document provided on the CD-ROM accompanying one the book How Computers Do Math
. Suffice it to say for the moment that, in February 1971, Great Britain retired the concept of pounds, shillings, and pence and officially adopted a decimal system in which a pound equaled 100 pennies (they were called “new pennies” at the time), much like the American dollar equals 100 cents.
Strange as it may seem, however, the majority of British citizens fought this move toward decimalization tooth-and-nail claiming that the new scheme was far too complicated and would never catch on! Long after the transition had taken place, I remember little old ladies standing in shops muttering to each other as to how complex the new currency was and how we should have stuck with good old pounds, shillings, and pence because that was so much simpler!
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